TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.  

There’s no greater example of the hazards of writing about television on a weekly basis than the past two episodes of Shameless.

Advertisement

Last week, I spent a considerable amount of space reflecting on the emotional weight of Fiona leaving the house behind, and on the show’s willingness to move past this point of stability in order to find more story to tell. Although the show as a whole has been scattered this season, that particular moment resonated, and spoke to the connection I’ve felt with Fiona’s arc in particular as the show has progressed.

And so it’s no surprise I spent much of “NSFW” shaking my head, watching as the tracks were laid for the Gallaghers to end up back exactly where they started, undercutting the narrative progress created by losing the house. From the moment the home inspector tells the guy who bought the house what it will cost to fix it while Fiona has conveniently broken in to overhear it, I realized that this was all going to be just another bump in the road. Even when Fiona’s attempts to buy the house through the bank were stalled by Gus’ return, I had no doubt the episode would end with the Gallaghers back home; I didn’t know if Gus was going to sign the paper, but I knew it didn’t really matter, because the very idea of the Gallaghers returning had made the path forward abundantly clear.

I don’t want to spend too much time dwelling on my disappointment: for worse, the show backed out of an interesting story development, and in the process resisted the kind of effort that might allow the show to reinvent itself and find new momentum as it (unavoidably) grows longer in the tooth. But the more important question is how it serves the rest of the storylines around it, and ultimately the show limited this to just one character: only Carl, the youngest of the non-Liam Gallaghers, ends up having anything to do with the house situation.

Advertisement

As much as the way Carl’s storyline has manifested this season has been more infuriating than funny or interesting, the idea of it works. Last season, Carl found himself moving into what Frank identifies as the family business, and in a very childish way he got himself arrested. This season has explored what would happen if Carl left juvenile detention and believed himself to no longer be a juvenile: yes, there’s an unfortunate minstrel act layered over top of it, but at its core Carl’s posturing rests on his belief that he no longer sees himself as a dependent. He’s spotting Frank cash, shuttling around Debbie in the car he bought for Nick to drive, and living the high life in a hotel.

“NSFW” is about breaking down this façade, as Nick’s quest to reclaim his lost bike effectively scares Carl back into being a teenager. Nick’s story, although never quite fully developed, hits an appropriate note of tragedy: he lost his childhood, but was forced out onto the streets when he hit 18, and ends up reverting to his previous aggression because he doesn’t know any other way to cope. He attacks and (we presume) kills a young kid who stole his bike, a bike that represented the childhood he never had, but Carl doesn’t understand—for however much Carl talked the talk, he doesn’t understand the kind of life that Nick has led, and he is incapable of facing the brutality involved.

Advertisement

Carl’s money was always the easiest solution to the Gallagher’s housing crisis, but it required two things: Fiona needed to be desperate enough to take it, yes, but more importantly Carl needed to have a reason to feel that the family’s future was also his own. He is not done being a little shit, placing his “Carl’s Crib” sign on the front of the house as though to mark out his ownership over the property, but he’s owning the fact that he needs Fiona. Ethan Cutkosky has rolled with the lighter side of Carl’s story, but he does his best work when he shows up to Sean’s door looking for a place to stay. It’s Carl realizing that he’s vulnerable, that he doesn’t know how to handle real adult situations or emotions, and that he ultimately needs Fiona as much as she—in this case—needs his money. It’s the two reaching a sort of tacit agreement that neither is in the situation to refuse the other’s support: Carl is not an adult, and Fiona has had a life too complicated for a traditional financial arrangement to be tenable (even if that’s mainly just because Gus is refusing to acknowledge his own role in their failed marriage, although I’ve come to accept that particular asshole turn).

The rest of the characters are largely on their own, and that has a range of different effects. For Debbie, her baby becomes more real as she learns its gender, a reveal that feels like a turning point in this story: I fully expect that we’ll see Erica—who finds out this week that she’s in remission—adopt Debbie’s baby, but the show obviously wants Debbie to come to that decision gradually, which tracks for the character more than her denial about her boyfriend earlier in the season. And we finally learn why Chuckie returned to the show, as Sherilyn Fenn—who I’m coincidentally watching as Luke’s baby mama on Gilmore Girls right now—shows up as Sami’s mother to reignite things with Frank. It’s been a productive couple of episodes for these stories: I’m still not that invested, but the pieces are in place, and the glimpses we’ve had of Frank’s legitimate love for his children—like being with Debbie at her ultrasound, and hoping that it would be a girl—have been humanizing in a way Frank’s stories rarely are.

Advertisement

However, with Lip and Ian I’m starting to reach a breaking point with how narrow their stories have become. One of the appeals of a soap opera is the deep history of the characters: we’ve seen them grow up, and go through a significant amount of story, and so we are that much more invested in them. But while Shameless might functionally operate as a soap opera, I’m not sure that Lip and Ian have seen the benefits of that. Lip’s story with Helene has had its issues in and of itself, but the bigger problem is that it doesn’t feel like Lip is reflecting on his experience within any larger context. He was in love with Helene, and completely ignorant to the power dynamics that the school administrators bring up during these hearings (which were ridiculous, just so we’re clear—there is no universe where Lip and Helene would ever be present at the same hearing, except to create dramatic confrontations like this one). But we’ve yet to see him start to understand what this means in terms of literally anything else: his future at the school, his view on relationships, anything. Lip has lost all character momentum, his storytelling solely resting on a specific conflict that felt tired the moment it was introduced.

Lip has arguably had this problem for a while: from Karen to Mandy to Amanda and now to Helene, Lip’s journey has largely been focused on relationships, and his “started from the bottom” story of social mobility has gotten lost in the shuffle. But with Ian, the contrast is more stark: Ian had arguably the most complex story to date, between his emerging sexuality, his diagnosis as bipolar, and his rocky relationship with Mickey that dates back to season one. That continuity is something that Lip never had (in part because his romantic partners kept leaving the show), but it’s also something that got arbitrarily cut off when Noel Fisher chose to leave. And so this season has been about defining Ian’s post-Mickey identity, and it’s…well, I don’t know if I totally understand it.

I revisited the origins of Ian’s relationship with Mickey, and I can see where the writers are drawing from when it comes to Ian’s courtship with firefighter Caleb. When Ian and Mickey first hook up in season one, it is after a fistfight as foreplay, after which the all-important line comes: when Ian starts to leave, he moves in for a kiss, and Mickey says “kiss me and I’ll cut your fucking tongue out.” We get a recounting of this dynamic between Ian and Mickey twice here (once with Lip and then once with Caleb), with the show underlining the atypical nature of their courtship to the point Caleb considers it to be an abusive relationship from an outsider’s perspective. And it echoes again when Ian tells Caleb that he thought kissing was something that only happened after you’ve had sex a few times.

Advertisement

But here’s the thing: I do not buy this. There is no doubt that Ian’s experience with relationships has not been normal, but the idea he would have zero understanding of what constitutes a normal relationship does not track for me. In rewatching that early scene, you realize that Ian wanted to kiss Mickey—in the midst of his sexual awakening, he had something of a romantic streak, and the idea that he’d be on a date acting like he came of age on a foreign planet strikes me as highly exaggerated.

Now, there is an argument here for a pathological explanation, which is that Ian’s bi-polar disorder and/or the medicine being used to treat it has resulted in this particular struggle. But the character’s lack of self-expression makes this reading tough, and it comes across more as the show reducing his identity to a very surface reading of his relationship with Mickey without allowing the character any degree of self-reflection. In asking who Ian would be based on his relationship with Mickey, a cause-and-effect model has been deployed that lacks the type of nuanced consideration of who Ian was before Mickey, how Ian negotiated that relationship, and how the end of that relationship would have affected him. There are arguments to be made that Mickey’s romanticizing of their connection would have pushed Ian in an opposite direction, but the character has been too marginalized this season for that approach to resonate, and the way he articulates himself here—seemingly ignorant to the idea that kissing could ever come before sex—in no way draws that reading to the surface.

Ian’s story is heading in a meaningful direction: the arbitrary ignorance bestowed onto Ian lets Caleb guide him through the basics of courtship, and Ian’s basic medical training from his time in the Army comes in handy during an emergency call to further send him into gainful employment. But the show needed to do more work to help us understand where Ian is coming from, and to not simply move the character “past” Mickey at the expense of fully understanding the character’s perspective on the past six seasons. If the meds are removing that perspective, we needed more storytelling to explore this, and if there has been self-reflection we haven’t seen we needed to see it. It ultimately has not rung true to the character as I’ve understood him, which is a problem on a few levels this season.

Advertisement

“Truth” is a difficult subject with this show. It’s not a realistic show on any level, and takes numerous liberties—I’ve been purposefully overemphasizing the liberties with the depiction of university culture, but you could do the same for any number of areas in the story, and my focusing on the one area I knew best was in no way suggesting it to be more important than the others. But at the same time, it is a show that has staked its claim to the truth of its characters, and to our relationships with them. It’s why there was no way the show could get away with Fiona backing out of her abortion: from the second her pregnancy was revealed, it was clear based on my understanding of the character she would get an abortion, and so it was a relief to see her follow-through despite the chaos around her.

While our reading of “truth” remains highly subjective depending on those relationships, it has—at this point in the show’s run—been shaped more by the text than by any sort of social reality. And so with “NSFW,” we find a version of Shameless that backtracks on an interesting story development, and where the search for the Gallaghers’ respective truths seems more haphazard than ever before. There is room to course-correct, and that search can itself be a productive story engine, but we’re halfway through the season and I would have hoped for a clearer outlook at this stage.

Stray observations

  • Kev and V end up using their child soldier refugees as bouncers at the Alibi Room, which…okay? I’m not sure whether the ups and downs of this Alibi story have been nearly substantial enough to be bothering with, but here we are.
  • While I appreciated the chance to see such a straight-forward depiction of abortion, and I thought the scene was handled well, it’s also refreshing that the scene came off as so mundane. There was a time this would have been revolutionary, but we’re past that, which is good.
  • Related: the sound design—the slightly muted nurse’s instructions—in the abortion scene reminded me a lot of the sexual assault interview that American Crime did earlier this season.
  • I was a little confused why Fiona wouldn’t have taken the closet door with her last week, but they needed some reason for her to go back and overhear the conversation, so that made sense retroactively.
  • I like to think that Frank refuses to believe Erica isn’t sexually attracted to Debbie because he has no conception of what it means to be paternal or maternal.
  • We had a big discussion in the comments regarding the way Helene’s image spread last week, and I don’t want to revisit it here lest my promise to die on this hill comes to pass. However, I definitely wish we could have seen more of how they’re suggesting Gawker became interested in Helene. The headline of “Office Hours Anyone?” suggests they’re just interested in random professors now, but that’s a stretch (although this story might have been the inspiration for this particular development).

Advertisement